Historical Backstory to Those Fleeing Syrians, Part 2

US Allies in the Creation of ISIS

Iraqi insurgents 2006 Photo credit: Menendj / Wikimedia
Reading Time: 11 minutes

News coming out of the Middle East is nearly always bad — so bad, it’s like a road accident: You just want to look away and keep on going. There’s nothing you can do.

How did it all come to this? Keep reading. Below is an excerpt from Syria Burning by Charles Glass. (Published by OR Books, New York and London, 2015.)

This book is about much more than Syria or the Middle East. It may be what the poet William Blake meant when he wrote, “To see a world in a grain of sand.”

Or a drop of oil.

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This is the second part of Chapter 2, Syria Burning. Please go here to read the first part. And to read Chapter 1, Arab Spring, Syrian Winter,” published July 1, 2015, please go here.

From the book’s “About the Author” section: Charles Glass is an author, journalist and broadcaster, who specializes in the Middle East. He made headlines when taken hostage for 62 days in Lebanon by Shi’a militants in 1987 while writing a book during his time as ABC’s News’ chief Middle East correspondent. He writes regularly for the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, the London Review of Books and The Spectator. He is the author of Tribes with Flags, Money for Old Rope, The Tribes Triumphant, The Northern Front, Americans in Paris, and Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II. You can purchase the book here.

Note: These excerpts have been compressed and edited.

The Brutal Rise of ISIS

In October 2014, the militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) murdered another western captive, Alan Henning. Henning, like his fellow humanitarian worker David Haines, had gone to Syria out of compassion for its people in the midst of a vicious civil war. His sympathy and bravery did not matter to ISIS any more than the pleas for mercy by the Henning and Haines families. ISIS beheaded both men as it did the American journalists James Foley and David Sotloff and more recently American aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig. The western world appears to be powerless to protect any of these captives.

No one can be sure how many of the journalists and aid workers who have gone missing in rebel-held areas of Syria are in ISIS hands, but it is a fair bet that the Islamic State will carry out more executions as long as the war goes on. ISIS has not hesitated to behead Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese civilians and captured soldiers.

As with its burning alive of a young Jordanian Air Force pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, it uses the public murders as propaganda to recruit jihadists rather than as a negotiating ploy. It has also enslaved, sold and raped hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Kurdish-speaking Yazidi women, as the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have reported.

The Pivotal Role of Turkey

There is no magic formula to bring the hostages home, but Turkey has demonstrated that it can persuade ISIS to release captives. In September, ISIS set free the 49 Turkish hostages it kidnapped in Mosul on June 11, 2014. Turkey denied that it paid ransom, which may or may not be true. While it attributed the release to a “rescue operation,” there was no evidence of a struggle, which means the “rescue” was more likely diplomatic than military.

Withal, I developed a high regard for Assad. In the Syrian context he was moderate indeed. He leaned toward the Soviets as the source of his military equipment. But he was far from being a Soviet stooge. He had a first-class mind allied to a wicked sense of humor. [Henry Kissinger]

Turkey’s past support for Islamic fundamentalists in Syria has given it leverage that made ransom irrelevant, because Turkey holds the power to deny ISIS access to arms, fighters and equipment from its territory across the border into Syria and Iraq.

When I was in northern Syria in September 2014, Armenian villagers told me they had seen Turkish military vehicles bringing Islamist fighters to the border to conquer Armenian villages in the area of Kessab last March.

US Allies Arm ISIS To Take Down Assad

Turkey is not the only enabler of the Islamist fundamentalists who have kidnapped and murdered Syrians, Iraqis, and Westerners since 2011. Two other Middle East allies of the United States and Britain, namely Qatar and Saudi Arabia, funded the groups that became ISIS throughout the Syrian rebellion against President Assad. American Vice President Joe Biden admitted as much to Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy Forum:

And what my constant cry was that our biggest problem is our allies—our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends—and I have the greatest relationship with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, which I just spent a lot of time with—the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except that the people who were being supplied were an-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.

What Biden neglected to say was that America’s allies conducted that policy with the knowledge of the United States, which did nothing to stop it.

The weapons supplied to the fanatics were manufactured in the US, and American intelligence in Turkey knew which rebels Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia were assisting.

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Caption: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi prisoner (left) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Caliph of the Islamic State (right) Photo credit: U.S Army / Wikimedia, Al-Furqān Media / Wikimedia

Moreover, the moving forces within ISIS, including its mercurial leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were graduates of the American prison system in Iraq, where previously non-political Sunni Muslims became radicals. [Elsewhere in the book, author describes al-baghdadi as “self-proclaimed “emir” or prince of al-Qaeda in Iraq.”]

ISIS’s brutal rise has complicated the alignment of foreign forces in Syria. In 2014, the United States reversed its policy from threatening to bomb the Syrian regime to bombing its enemies. This gave the regime hope. It saw that not only would it survive, but that it would become, however covertly, a partner of the nations that had worked most assiduously to remove it.

I was in Syria just before the US began bombing ISIS-held towns, with the predictable civilian casualties and targets that turned out to be grain silos and private houses, and Syrian officials were anticipating American involvement with satisfaction.

Having said for four years that Assad must go, Obama has yet to explain why Assad can, for the time being, stay. This change would not be unusual for an American president, since the recurring theme in US–Syria relations throughout the Assad era has been one of hostility followed by cooperation—that is, cooperation when both sides needed it.

During the early years of Hafez al-Assad’s rule, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger refused all dealings

with the ostensibly pro-Soviet ruler. The October 1973 war, launched by Egypt and Syria to regain territories Israel occupied in 1967, put an end to that. Kissinger flew to Damascus in December 1973 and wrote later:

Withal, I developed a high regard for Assad. In the Syrian context he was moderate indeed. He leaned toward the Soviets as the source of his military equipment. But he was far from being a Soviet stooge. He had a first-class mind allied to a wicked sense of humor.

The US opened an embassy in Damascus in 1974 and enjoyed a brief honeymoon with Assad père, until his meddling in Lebanon made him persona non grata again in Washington. A near victory by Palestinian commandos in Lebanon’s civil war in 1976 prompted Kissinger to ask Assad to send his army into Lebanon to control the Palestine Liberation Organization and save Lebanon’s Christians.

By 1982, the US was again fed up with Assad for giving aid to Yasser Arafat. That turned out to be disastrous for Arafat. Syrian tolerance of his actions only worsened his situation and that of his people as Palestinian commandos had a part in dividing and ruining Lebanon. Ronald Reagan let the Israelis drive Assad’s army out of most of Lebanon.

A few years later, when Hezbollah was making life unbearable in West Beirut and Westerners were easy pickings for kidnappers, the first Bush administration invited Syria back into the region that its army had evacuated in 1982.

This was followed by another freeze in relations that ended when Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, asked Syria to take part in the war to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Assad obliged, making him a temporary hero at the White House if something of a pariah to those of his citizens who were Arab nationalists.

After September 11, the US rendered terrorism suspects to Syria for torture. That relationship ended with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 and Syria’s humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon after it was accused of conspiring against Hariri. If his father survived the ups and downs of that seesaw, young Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000, has a good chance of riding out a rebellion that has become, as he had prematurely claimed at its inception, an uprising of fanatics and terrorists who want to take Syria into a dark age.

Ordinary Life Surrounded by Horror

As Bashar’s prospects improve with each American sortie against his enemies in the east of the country, Damascus and the populous towns to the north have been enjoying a respite of sorts from war. The Syrian Ministry of Education reported that, of the 22,000 schools in the country, more than 17,000 of them reopened on time in the middle of September 2014. Needless to say, almost all of the functioning schools were in government-held areas.

The souqs in the old city of Damascus, unlike their more extensive and now destroyed counterparts in Aleppo, have remained open. Shops selling meat, vegetables, spices and other basic items to the local population have thrived, although the tourist boutiques in and around the famous Souq Hamadiyeh had no customers apart from UN workers and a few diplomats.

At night, restaurants in most neighborhoods were. on my many visits, if not full, nearly so. Everything from wine to grilled chicken is plentiful, albeit at prices higher than before the war. Traffic remains heavy, although somewhat less obstructed since June 2014 when the government felt confident enough to remove many of its checkpoints. Electricity has been intermittent, and those who can afford private generators relied on them in the off-hours.

There was fear, however, that a major onslaught by ISIS and similar jihadist groups would put an end to these pockets of ordinary life. It is hard for Syrians to accept that the countries in the Gulf and elsewhere that supported ISIS with arms, financing and fighters are now signing up to an American coalition to bring it down.

In the old city of Damascus, where I stayed in September 2014 in an Ottoman palace converted into a hotel, I heard each morning at eight the roar of Syrian warplanes. They ran bombing missions on the suburb of Jobar, not more than a few hundred yards from the old city’s walls. Most of Jobar’s inhabitants fled long ago, and its buildings have dissolved to rubble under relentless shelling. The rebels are said to be safe underground in tunnels that they or their prisoners have dug over the past two years. They fire the occasional mortar, which the Damascenes ignore.

People in the city refuse to see and hear the violence in their suburbs, much as Beverly Hills ignored riots in Watts in 1965 and 1992. It becomes easy to pretend there is no war, unless a bomb falls too close or kills someone you know. One morning as I was driving through the upscale Abu Rummaneh quarter, a rebel mortar shell whistled overhead, hit a fuel storage tank and sent black smoke soaring into the sky. Yet the shoppers around the corner went on as if nothing happened.

Jobar was one of the few outlying areas of the capital still in rebel hands in late 2014, but the government has dealt more successfully with the others. It has recaptured some, like Mleiha on August 14. In others, a UN official said, the strategy has been subtler. Commanders from the warring sides make local agreements not to fight one another.

“Local agreements for them are just stages of their military strategy,” said a United Nations official involved in talks between the two sides. “Fragment areas. Isolate them. Besiege them, until the people understand that they are not going to win the war and are going to negotiate. The opposition calls this a policy of kneel or starve…. The government uses the term ‘reconciliation.’ We call it ‘surrender.’”

A young Druze friend, who like the rest of his community has struggled not to take sides, said, “People are exhausted. Even those who fought the regime are moving toward reconciliation.” It is hard to blame them, when more than 200,000 Syrians have died and another nine million have become refugees inside and outside their country in a war that has, to date, achieved nothing except death and destruction.

“It’s a lot quieter in Damascus,” admitted a UN aid worker, “but there are other places that are on fire.” Yet the fire is burning far to the north and east of Damascus, many miles from the heartland of populated Syria. The roads west to Lebanon and north from Damascus to Homs look as if central Damascus has become a green zone that is contiguous with the regions the regime considers vital to its survival.

The first sight as I drove on the highway north out of the capital in the summer of 2014 was the district of Harasta, destroyed and mostly deserted. Then came Adra, an industrial town that was brutally captured in 2013 by Islamists who massacred its Alawite inhabitants. Shortly after I drove past, the government took it back and invited its industrial workers to return.

Farther north, the highway crosses open land of farms and peasant hamlets. In 2013, the route there was not safe. Bandits and rebels alike set up flying checkpoints to demand money or cars and to kidnap those who looked prosperous enough to afford ransom. It was a no-go zone for minority sects like the Alawites, Ismailis, and Christians, as well as for visiting Westerners.

A year later, the atmosphere had changed. The rebels in Homs, said in 2011 to be the cradle of the revolution, surrendered their positions to the government and left with their light weapons in May 2014. Only the district of Al Wa’er, about a mile from the old city, remained in rebel hands and under regime siege.

There was a tense and regularly violated truce, but the city had been pacified. Some civilians returned home, even to houses that needed rebuilding after four years of fighting. Christians fleeing from areas taken by ISIS and the Islamic Front groups found temporary refuge in an Armenian church in the city, and local aid organizations helped people of all sects.

The road west from Homs toward the sea was by mid-2014 safe for anyone not allied to the rebels. The famed Krak des Chevaliers Crusader fortress, from which rebels were able to shell the highway and nearby villages, had reverted to the government. So had the towns of Qosair and Qalamoun, which the rebels needed to keep their lines of supply open to Lebanon. The road runs through fields where the apple harvest has begun and the olives would soon be collected. The coastal city of Tartous was buzzing with life, as if there had never been a war. The ferry to Arwad Island, where families go for lunch, was running every 20 minutes.

Farther north, the port of Latakia has suffered shelling only on the rare occasions that rebels took positions in the Alawite hills above it until the army quickly pushed them back. It may sound odd to anyone outside Syria who has followed the conflict, but the beach in front of my hotel in Latakia was filled with families swimming and not a few women in bikinis.

Out of Control

There was fear, however, that a major onslaught by ISIS and similar jihadist groups would put an end to these pockets of ordinary life. It is hard for Syrians to accept that the countries in the Gulf and elsewhere that supported ISIS with arms, financing and fighters are now signing up to an American coalition to bring it down.

Yet ISIS may have gone too far, even for its backers. The caliphate that it declared in parts of Syria and Iraq struck a strong chord with Islamist fanatics in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and other states that had facilitated the group’s rapid and rabid expansion. These states must fear that the movement they brought to Syria will come to haunt them.

“It’s like the lion tamer,” an Arab diplomat in Damascus told me. “He feeds and trains the lion, but the lion might kill him at the right moment.”

Related front page panorama photo credit: Charles Glass, Map of Middle East (W123 / Wikimedia), AQMI Flag (Yo / Wikimedia), Presidents of Syria (Wikimedia)

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